Friday, January 30, 2009

Did you feel that?

That shift? That slight movement? That indication that we finally...finally...have a flight to Iraq. All I can say on this unsecure blog is that it's midweek next week. :) We're finally going! Going to be a long flight, though...not looking forward to that.
I thoroughly enjoyed my four days in NYC and it was hard to get on the Amtrak for the ride home. My hotel room was very nice and I enjoyed my afternoon naps and sleeping late in my king-sized bed with about 150 pillows. I arrived early Monday morning and wandered around Broadway and the diamond district. Went to Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral. It was a 30-minute shortened version but still awesome to take Communion in the best-known Catholic Church in the US. I went into the gift shop and bought a St. Christopher's medal. I thought it was very appropriate to have one from the patron saint of travelers.
I had dinner with and spent time Monday evening with my stepbrother, Simon. I haven't seen him in years to it was nice to sit and chat and catch up in the limited time that we had. He was there with his wife and several of their friends. We all got to chatting and the inevitable question of "where are you from?" came up. It's hard to explain...I'm at Ft. Dix getting ready to head to Iraq within a week or two. Some surprised expressions and lots of good luck wishes. One woman in particular asked a lot of questions...and I was happy to answer. As an Army Public Affairs officer I'm used to answering questions about Iraq. I have access to information and probably follow the news more than the average person so speaking about Iraq, my job, my unit, the training we've been through, etc. was easy. As we were getting ready to leave she said "you're so calm".
Guess I forgot to mention the butterflies that I get when I think about what's coming up! Especially now that we have a flight.
But then again, how could I not be calm? I'm trained for this, my unit is trained, and I have faith in the Soldiers that make up my unit. It's easy to project a sense of calm and trust because of the officers that keep this unit running. I can't do everything (I'm just responsible for everything) so I have to rely on my officers to do their jobs...and do them correctly. And they do. Over and over again they have proven their mettle. And my 1SG Sergeant...knowing he's got my back makes it easy for me to be calm. I don't have to step into NCO issues because 1SG Martinez is usually one step ahead of me, making things at the NCO level run smoothly. Even my E4 Mafia knows their job, does it well, then imbibes in well-earned pizza and goofy movies in the dayroom.
Yeah, I'm calm. It's hard not to be.
Anyways, Tuesday I went to Liberty and Ellis Islands. The statue is an amazing work of engineering and it was a thrill to be standing at the base of the pedestal and looking up at the face that greeted millions of immigrants to the New World all those years ago. I tried to imagine myself standing on the deck of a packed steamer, tired, hungry, dirty, and looking up at that face of freedom and what she stood for. Ellis Island was also amazing...such a story! If those walls could talk (and when the paint peeled off they actually did)! So much family history in those hallways and rooms. I typed my last name into the database but came up with nothing. But apparently you have to put in first and last names, date of arrival (or as close as possible), the ship, etc.
Wednesday I wandered around and went to the matinee production of Equus at the Broadhurst Theater. Now, I'm a fairly open-minded person, but that is just one weird play. Thoroughly enjoyed Daniel Radcliff (of Harry Potter fame) as the slightly-to-the-left-of-crazy stable boy. I always like to see actors branching away from typecast characters, playing someone totally opposite of what we're used to seeing.
All the while in NYC I sat in cafes, sipping coffee and watching people zip by. People walk so fast in NYC!! I felt guilty wandering the streets that all these people has someplace they had to be while I was out ambling around...nowhere to go and all day to get there.
But it was back to reality last night...formation at 2000 (that's 8 p.m. for you non-military types). Time to take the earrings out, put the civilian clothes away, and get back to work.
All that's left is for me to receive my specially-fitted protective mask. Will get that Monday. Once it's fitted and been tested for leaks we are validated. Done. 'Bout time!

Random NYC Photographs...

The baggage area in the Great Hall at the Ellis Island Museum.
Lady Liberty.

The Sphere from the former World Trade Center site.

St. Patrick's Cathedral

Rockefeller Plaza

10 Million People in NYC...

...and look who I run into on Park Avenue!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

All Good Things...

...must eventually come to an end.

It's official...the 211th MPAD is no longer a "unit in training for mobilization". We are more training, no more PowerPoint classes, no more ranges. With the exception of a few loose ends we are "validated" and ready to depart. It's mostly paperwork and getting the last of our uniforms...a downhill slide for us.

Our final moment came and went fireworks, no cannons, no thunder. Perhaps that's because our last scheduled training event was a live fire exercise with live ammunition and lots of pyrotechnics going off around us. Perhaps it's because after almost 4 months of ongoing training there is just nothing left to say. Whatever the reason that day that we all have strived for since 10 October is here. we come!

There was some quiet contemplation of what we'd accomplished in the van on the way back to the barracks. Well, except for the younger Soldiers in the back complaining about the radio station. Hey, the old folks are in the front! We get to pick the radio station and if it's 60s and 70s oldies rock-and-roll then so be it. You can harass your own Soldiers when you're older and in charge. ;)

We have our 4-day pass beginning tomorrow and today is "pre-" pass with downtime and weapons cleaning. It's a chance to start finally packing our gear for the trip overseas. I packed my "A" bag today (we have "A", "B", and "C" bags...each containing specific items). Well, packed is a loose interpretation of putting 10 pounds of potatoes into a 5-pound bag. The "A" bag contains our JSList, protective mask, and our IBA (Interceptor Body Armor) plus a few other items. It was a tight fit but it's all in there. Of course, I can't lift the duffel bag it's so heavy! But it's packed. Next to pack is the "C" bag with the rest of the gear I won't need until we hit Kuwait and do a bit more training there.

Our time at Ft. Dix is running more week...two more weeks...who knows? My final directive to my Soldiers for all this pre-mobilization prep is simple: Keep your bags packed and be ready to go on a moment's notice. Who knows when that bird is going to fly!

Off to New York tomorrow...see ya then.

The Many Faces of the 211th MPAD

Thursday, January 22, 2009


If I had to pick three words to describe yesterday's weapons qualification training I'd pick: brrrrrr!; bang!; and brrrr!

To say it was cold would leave some room for a bit of warmth. As it was, it was freakin' cold. We were at three different ranges to qualify with our to zero both the weapon and the optics, one for day/NBC qualification, and one for limited visibility qualification, i.e. after the sun had already started to set.

Not sure how, but it was colder in the middle of the day for qualification than it was a 7:30 in the morning to zero. All three ranges did provide a warm room for breaks and for those not shooting, but still...lying on the ground or standing behind those shooting is still freakin' cold! I was an "AI" for most of the assigned weapon is an M9 I was assisting Soldiers while they were shooting and signaling the tower that these Soldiers were ready to fire. The late afternoon qualification was the was an open, elevated range and the wind was just...icy. To qualify, shooters only had to hit 7 targets out of 30. Everyone got 30 out of 30...but people would have been happy to just stop at 7 and go back to the warm room!

Everyone fact, the 211th has several shooters who can not only hit the broadside of a barn, but hit one of the nails holding the side of that barn together. Despite weapons jamming, optics malfuctioning, glasses fogging, and fingers freezing, everyone walked away qualified and more ready to go to Iraq.

This was one of the last major training events that we are scheduled for while at Ft. Dix. With each passing day we move closer and closer to our departure date...whenever that is.

On Tuesday we watched the inauguration of our new Commander-in-Chief with interest. For about 15 minutes, from noon until 12:15, everything around us just stopped and everyone was planted in front of a TV. It was a historic moment for everyone, but when we in uniform get a new "boss" we tend to pay attention. Regardless of whether one voted for him or not, he is the President of the United States and he is now calling the shots that determine our military destiny. I feel that we are in good hands.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Start spreading the news!

I'm going to New York City! I'm going to wake up in that city that doesn't sleep, going to find myself king of the hill, top of the heap...

My small town blues are are definitely melting away as I start planning my 4-day pass to the Big Apple. This was a pleasant surprise from the mobilization cell here at Ft. Dix...a four-day pass! We had originally taken it off the schedule since we weren't going to be here that long and we'd just come off of a 2-week holiday break. But it seems we've got some "white space" (Army speak for open time on the calendar) and so we're getting our pass. I was looking forward to spending the time here in the barracks, napping and catching up on reading and writing but then 1SG Martinez said he was going to NYC and so I thought I'd tag along.

We're taking Amtrak to Penn Station from Trenton, NJ and then going off in our own directions. I've got tickets to see the Broadway play Equus...a little dark contemplation prior to deployment! I'm really looking forward to one last fling before I head overseas.

Our MRE wrapped up nicely...our print journalists got stories in the Ft. Dix paper and our broadcast journalists are waiting for a clear day to get their stuff up on DVIDS for marketing. The PAO staff let us keep our equipment at their office so we can go back whenever we want to (refer back to the "white space") to do some more work and get more familiar with our brand-new equipment.

If you've been following the weather lately you know that it's been freakin' cold in the United States and Ft. Dix hasn't escaped that cold snap. It's been hovering around the mid-teens the past few days so most of our Soldiers have been hiding in the barracks and avoiding going outside, even to get meals at the DFAC. We went to the commissary yesterday and I stocked up on pop-tarts so I don't have to get out of bed at 0630 to go and eat breakfast. I keep the Diet Coke on the windowsill so it stays cold. Pop-tarts and Diet Coke...breakfast of champions! This morning someone ventured out and got Dunkin Donuts coffee and donuts so I was happy.

It's a quiet weekend for us (more white space) so here I sit, updating my blog because my dad called me yesterday and told me I was a few days behind... :) Sorry dad, I'll do better about providing updates! I have my iPod on and am listening to the soundtrack to Evita. I know when I start singing out loud...I get evil stares from the other Soldiers sitting in here working on their laptops.

Off to do PT (that's physical training for you non-military types...)

SGT Heis hard at work proving that Army broadcast journalists really can work 72 hours without sleep.

Our so-called "white cell" personnel. Proof positive that Public Affairs people are simply not normal. It was SGT Rangel's birthday. He's the one with the hat!
SPC Fardette hard at work with our new equipment during our recent MRE.

SSG Burrell talks with someone on the phone about something important during our recent MRE while PFC Johnson looks on. I'm guessing he's ordering pizza.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

MRE...and not the kind you eat...

After a week of mobilization inprocessing, paperwork, and other minute details we FINALLY get to do what a Public Affairs Detachment does...Public Affairs stuff.

Yesterday we started our MRE...Mission Readiness Exercise. We invaded "Camp Liberty" Public Affairs Office (otherwise known as the Ft. Dix Public Affairs Office) and set up the Media Operations Center. Almost instantly there was a flurry of activity with journalists finding story ideas and setting up interviews, officers looking for information on the website and monitoring input from our "white cell", i.e. the guys behind the scenes who are running our exercise.

Think the Wizard of Oz except you have to pay attention to the man (and woman) behind the curtain! We get so-called media queries, answers from higher, and other information from the white cell and we have to react accordingly with press releases or distribution of information or even photographs. It's very realistic and fun and a chance for me, as the commander of this fine unit, to finally see what my officers and journalists are capable of. So far it's been very impressive, even the half-asleep night shift.

We will do this at least through Thursday and then we can recoup, do an after action review, clean our cameras, load our equipment back on the conex, and continue through the regular mobilization process.

On another note, as our movement day looms closer and closer our Soldiers are starting to accept the reality that they are going to be gone for a year. While we were in Bryan they still had a lot of freedoms, freedoms that we no longer have, i.e. wearing civilian clothes and going out to restaurants, nightspots, movies, or any other form of "after hours" activities they choose. Now we cannot drive private vehicles and we have to eat chow at the dining facility. It's a very long list of things that we have had to adapt to as part of the mobilization process.

But we still have e-mail. I remember deploying to Bosnia in January of 1998 through Ft. Benning, Georgia. The Internet and e-mail was still relatively new and to check e-mail Soldiers had to go to one building at Ft. Benning and use WebTV that was very slow. Most Soldiers didn't use it because they didn't even have a computer at home, much less e-mail.

Now, here at Ft. Dix, you walk into the dayroom in the evenings and there are many Soldiers in there, hunkered down over laptops, sending e-mail and doing other things. Most of our Soldiers have laptops, including my little ultra-portable, and the barracks have wireless Internet access. We can e-mail or blog from just about anywhere these days. How things have changed!

Ahhh, technology...I'm guessing the next time I deploy (shut your mouth!) instead of getting into theater via aircraft I'll just be beamed from one place to another in an instant. :)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

What'll get us out of here faster?

That's the answer we've had to the main question around Ft. Dix this week.

Ft. Dix is halfway between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants so there is a good balance of fans from both teams here. So, as we've moved through inprocessing and people have asked us "are you Eagles or Giants fans?" we respond with "what'll get us out of here faster?"

Or if we see a jersey from that team we start talking about how wonderful Donovan McNabb is or how talented Eli Manning is...hoping that we'll be done just a bit quicker.

It has been crazy busy here since we arrived late Tuesday. The mob process used to be 3 months it's about 21 days so the minute we got up Wednesday morning everyone wanted a piece of the 211th and its staff. I was expected to defy physics and be in no less than 4 places at one time! As usual, we handled everything with our usual mix of humor, inside jokes, and a touch of sarcasm.

So far we've worked our way through finance, family support, and medical...including yet another typhoid shot for me! I don't know how the Army continues to find shots to give me.

Next week we start our MRE...Mission Readiness Exercise. We deploy to "Camp Victory" (otherwise known as the Ft. Dix Public Affairs Office) and run our Media Operations Center 24/7. This is the first time our journalists have been able to get out and do real stories on real Soldiers doing real things so it's going to be nice to see their talent. We've got 4 - 5 days of that and then we go into range operations. We qualified with our M16 rifles when we were here in October but since then we have acquired M4 rifles so we have to requalify. Considering it's going to be about 4 degrees outside when we do, that's going to be a fun day. Not.

Keep us in your thoughts and prayers...we're doing a fine job and all of our friends and families should be proud of us!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

How Do You Measure A Year?

Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes,
five hundred twenty five thousand moments so dear.
Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes,
how do you measure, measure a year?
In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee,
in inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife.
In five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes,
how do you measure a year in a life?

Jonathan Larson - Seasons of Love - Rent Soundtrack

Tomorrow, January 5, is the Big Day. You know..That Day. That Date. The one that's printed on our mobilization orders. The Date we've been working towards since 10 October (and sooner). The Date that it all begins.

How do you measure a year out of your life? A year away from your kids, spouse, lover, friends, life? How do you measure a year of your life with little privacy and few personal freedoms? Right now a year seems immeasurable... a lifetime from this perspective at this moment in time. I just put my car in storage and it's going to be more than a year before I drive it (or probably any other vehicle) again. All my household goods are in tan boxes in a storage unit. I said goodbye to my friends and family last summer when I relocated to Bryan but it's still difficult knowing that they are soon going to be so much farther away than they are now...out of text and phone call reach. Other Soldiers in my unit are spending today saying good-bye to their families, their friends, their lives. Tomorrow we will all be back together at the Reserve Center in Bryan and doing final preparations for our departure to Ft. Dix early Tuesday morning.

I believe that the year spent in Iraq will go by quickly. Before we know it we'll be welcoming our replacement unit (if there is one) and getting our gear ready for our return to the US. Then we can do the reverse of what's happening today...seeing our families, seeing our friends, getting back into our lives.

And in between?

A lifetime of adventures. A chance to experience a culture directly opposite of what have here in the US. A chance to grow personally and professionally, to look back in 5 years and say "I was a part of that" or "I did that". A chance to meet new people and learn new things. A chance to grow as a human being and learn something new about yourself.

This year will be good or bad for each Soldier, depending on the attitude they bring with them tomorrow. For me, it's was 6 years ago that I was doing the exact same thing at this time: prepping for deployment to Kuwait and then possibly Iraq. I left for mob station at Ft. Benning on 4 January 2003 as ADVON for the 318th PAOC. We didn't know what the future held for us at the time since there was still a chance that Saddam Hussein would turn himself in before the 18 March deadline. How ironic that I was one of the first Public Affairs Officers into Iraq in 2003 and, hopefully, will be one of the last ones out.

Here I sit in my apartment, empty of everything except what is going to Iraq with me. My life feels kind of empty as well right now. But tomorrow? That will change as I work with the unit to get the last of the gear packed and shipped, talk to our bus drivers, turn in my computer, and clean out my desk.

Then for a year I'll be busy and my life will be full. Adventures. That's how I'm going to mark my year.

Oh yeah, and definitely cups of coffee. ;)